JAKE LOCKER HEAVES his 235-pound frame across campus with the slow, careful deliberation of a child choosing from among 31 flavors of ice cream.
It’s a bright April morning at the University of Washington, and as the 20-year-old undeclared major plods through the sunshine, he could almost pass for your average “u-dub” student—a recent fraternity pledge, say, with baggy jeans falling over his white sneakers, black T-shirt, and ears that poke out from his Washington Nationals cap. But here, on this campus, Jake Locker, now lumbering through tree-ringed Red Square, cannot be mistaken for just any member of the student body. Anonymity isn’t easy to achieve when you cross paths with fellow students wearing replicas of your jersey (Locker, No. 10), when pretty girls stop dead in their tracks as you brush past.
Such is the life of the quarterback brought to campus to resurrect a football program that’s still trying to recapture its glory. People watch his every move, want to know what he’s doing with his free time, and how he’s going to bring a Pacific-10 Conference title, the most coveted prize in Western states college ball, to Montlake.
He takes a seat in the back row of his Intro to the New Testament class, pulls out a binder, and looks over his notes. A student a third his size looks over at Locker once, twice, three times, but says nothing. Locker looks up from his notes, says hello, shakes the kid’s hand, and starts up a conversation. “Sometimes,” Locker says later, “if I see someone wants to talk to me, I’ll just start it.”
It’s been six years since the University of Washington’s last winning season. Three coaching changes, 41 losses, and just 18 victories have followed. The UW’s last notable squad, the 11-1 Rose Bowl–winning team of 2000, is now infamous for its felons—that year at least 12 members of the team were arrested or charged with crimes including assault, robbery, and rape.
To revive its disgraced football franchise the school hired Tyrone Willingham, a coach known for his knack for connecting with players and turning them into scholar-athletes. A year before the UW won the Rose Bowl, Willingham led conference rival Stanford to the same high-profile game but lost by eight points to Wisconsin. In 2000, he and the Cardinal struggled through a 5-6 season, but rebounded in 2001, going 9-3, Stanford’s best record in seven years. In the process Willingham solidified his reputation as a successful coach who also built high-character teams and landed the head coaching job at Notre Dame. But after three mostly disappointing seasons there, the Fighting Irish’s first African American coach was ousted before he had completed a full four-year cycle of recruiting.
Willingham came to Seattle from South Bend in 2005 with two goals in mind: Build a team of integrity and stanch the losing streak. The latter has yet to happen—the team’s record in Willingham’s three years as coach is just 11-25. After a disappointing 4-9 season in 2007, fans, boosters, and alumni (including former Everett mayor Ed Hansen, who offered the school $100,000 to fire Willingham) cried for the coach’s dismissal. Willingham survived the tumultuous off—season, but athletic director Todd Turner got the axe. Another losing season will almost assuredly result in Willingham’s termination.
Standing in the way of disaster like a blond superhero is Jake Locker from tiny Ferndale, 100 miles north. The chiseled quarterback is coming off a promising freshman season that included the most rushing yards (987) by a quarterback in UW history, 27 total touchdowns, and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors. Locker has the tools that makes coaches drool—a rocket arm, size, speed, intelligence, leadership. His squeaky-clean image and aw-shucks personality also make him the poster boy for the type of team the university and Willingham crave. The immense pressure put on Locker to succeed comes from everywhere—his family, fans, the media, his coaches. “He’ll be the best QB that’s played here,” says the University of Washington’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tim Lappano. “I really believe that, and there’s been some great ones. But by the time he’s finished he’s going to be the best one to put on the gold helmet for the Huskies.” To save the job of the coach who inspires him, Locker’s time for greatness is now.
Locker sits in the middle of one of the school’s cavernous food courts after class, munching on a cookie before tackling a Subway sandwich, talking with a teammate as people gawk from nearby tables. His friend is finished with his soup and sandwich before Locker even unwraps his. “When he’s not playing ball, he’s kind of slow, kind of a plodder,” Locker’s father Scott says. “He eats one thing at a time—first his meat, then his potatoes. He’s a methodical eater.” “He’s not a multitasker,” his mother Anita adds. “It surprises me how well he does in athletics.”